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The Hawthorne Effect will reduce employee turnover

Hawthorne Effect

Written before about employee turnover (and ideally reducing it), and now we’re going to add a new wrinkle to this whole deal: the Hawthorne Effect. What’s that, you ask? Good question. Per Wikipedia, the Hawthorne Effect is “when individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behavior in response to being observed.” This all comes from a place called Hawthorne Works (get it?) in Cicero, Illinois and some experiments done with light bulbs. If you make the room more bright — increase the light bulb, in other words — workers end up being more productive. But if you dim the light bulb again, productivity drops back to normal (or below-normal levels). The whole deal with the Hawthorne Effect, then, is that if you’re more responsive to worker needs, maybe those workers will be more productive.

I explained this whole thing to my wife this morning en route to the dog park. She said, and I mostly quote this correctly, “Isn’t that just basic human nature? Or human decency?” Indeed, it is. Unfortunately, a lot of managers are unaware of how to do this. Remember: we live in a world where 68 percent of managers aren’t engaged in the career development of their employees. Only 1 in 3 managers can name the strengths of their employees. 60 percent of managers claim they “don’t have the time” to respect their employees. This is all real stuff, and people live through it every day. If you doubt my veracity on this, check the global employee engagement statistics — or check the “trust in workplace” statistics. Both are essentially in the toilet.

Now, have you ever heard of Frederick Winslow Taylor? He wrote a book in 1911 — 106 years ago, basically — that is still being used as a gold standard around how to manage people today. It attempts to explain individual productivity in ways that were somewhat relevant then — and are completely outdated now. As The Economist has explained, the Hawthorne Effect was a repudiation of some of Winslow’s work.  Even with the Hawthorne Effect, though, the stats above are true. Managers still aren’t very good. 82 percent, by some estimation, end up being the wrong hire. What’s going on here?

The Hawthorne Effect: Some important backstory

Before we get super deep into this, let’s establish two things quickly. First: management is not intuitive. What gets you there is hitting goals and targets and, usually, making people up the chain look better until they decide to advance you. Once you become a manager, however, your goals are different. You may think it’s still about hitting targets (many always think this), but managers manage the workloads and supposed priorities of other people. That requires a different series of skill sets — but we don’t often focus on those skill sets (i.e. communication) when training or advancing people. 

In a nutshell, this is why most managers suck. They get the role and focus on the wrong things. This is also, of course, where “micromanagement” comes from.

The other thing to remember is what people usually want from work. Sometimes it’s to do a good job and produce quality output. I’d actually argue that’s not the norm. I think what most people want from work is a sense of relevance and to mostly be seen as competent. Those desires grow as you rise up a chain, in addition to the desire for more and more money. Down the chain and in the middle, I’d add “being respected” to this list — and/or “the perception that you can advance.”

If people really cared about doing quality work at work, we wouldn’t have such a huge problem with confusing “busy” and “productive.” That’s probably the easiest way I can explain all that.

The Hawthorne Effect in The Knowledge Economy

If you scroll up a little bit, you’ll see that a lot of us are still managing others based on a book released in 1911. That’s a fucking farce. Henry Ford’s biggest competitor then was horses. Now we have self-driving cars. Why are we still managing the same way? It’s an all-time question.

In the last 105 years, the economy has shifted from industrial/manufacturing to this idea of “The Knowledge Economy.” In The Knowledge Economy, the Hawthorne Effect takes a different track than adjusting light bulbs.

As noted in this post on I Done This, the Hawthorne Effect in The Knowledge Economy is about showing you’re invested in employee productivity and happiness. I know this sounds fluffy, but it’s more about caring and showing than just tossing around the right buzzwords at a meeting. I’ve talked a little bit about this before: if you’re serious about employee engagement, for example, you need to cut the bullshit. Most executives can’t do that. They’re too caught up in “The Spreadsheet Mentality” to care about this people stuff. Isn’t that HR’s domain?

As I Done This notes:

Show your employees you care by actually listening to how they work best. You can do that by bringing them into the conversation about their own work and accommodate their preferences.

Ah, “listening.” Another soft skill. What next?

The Hawthorne Effect and productivity/collaboration tools

As a company grows or “scales,” the idea of one-on-one meetings becomes impossible. Bigger meetings, usually massive productivity sinkholes, persist. Decision-making becomes slower. Companies are primed for “disruption.”

One way people have tried to deal with this is by introducing productivity or collaboration tools. Some of the big names on the market right now would be Slack, Trello, Asana, Basecamp, etc. Collaboration tools have their issues, mostly around how they’re rolled out within teams. Productivity tools have similar issues.




 

But something like Trello, for example, has benefits. I use it with lots of different people (and individually). It’s a way to kind of reverse-scale communications in a company. You could easily get feedback or see what different people are working on. (Same with Basecamp, Slack, etc.) It could help you with the Hawthorne Effect in the modern age. You could show employees that you understand what they’re doing and where they’re heading — and when priorities are clearly out of whack, you could dive in and adjust it. No one wants to work on some bullshit that no one cares about for weeks, but that often happens at companies — because companies are often giant priority vacuums.

The Hawthorne Effect and the dirty little managerial secret

A lot of times within “thought leadership” articles, we’ll get to a topic like the Hawthorne Effect and start discussing bullshit like “organic feedback” and “employee voice.” No one cares about this stuff within companies. They should, and maybe a few actually do, but by and large companies are about racing from meeting to meeting and call to call and trying to make money. Most managers are awful and don’t have time to worry about “organic feedback.”

Because organic feedback and “the power of employee voice” don’t often happen, you do need to use some kind of tool to make this easier. A lot of people are legitimately lazy. Just like email eventually (quickly?) became a thing to hide behind, a lot of managers want more technology — because then they can avoid these face-to-face conversations that make them uncomfortable. So use something like Trello or Slack. See if it works. For many, it has. That’s good, right?

I’ll end with two things about turnover. The only way to reduce turnover is to make sure you respect people, give them relevant stuff to work on, and pay them pretty well. Most companies go 0-for-3 on those three targets. They treat people like pigs, give them grunt work, and underpay them. At a place like that, the top people make money — yay! — but turnover is immense. What’s in it for an employee? He/she can’t rise up, and everything at the current level sucks.

The Hawthorne Effect can help you with turnover. It creates a context where managers need to listen — and not lip service — the real core, underlying concepts of what we want from work.

What else would you add around the Hawthorne Effect and employee voice/motivation?

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. Interesting to me how some in HR will badger you during an interview about your work history and keep you from advancing if they feel you’re a “job hopper” (a lot of hiring managers buy into that myth as well) but do nothing to provide their employees with an incentive to stay at their companies past 2-3 years (if that).

    You see a lot of “advice” that goes “uhh, stick it out and suck it up”, but that’s about as old-fashioned and out of date as Taylorism.

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